Thursday, May 24, 2007

Spring Oolongs and Fake Formosa Oolong

I will leave for Central Taiwan in a couple of hours to select my Spring Oolongs and attend Lugu's Farmer Assocation Tea Competition Final Day on May 27. That's when they announce the winners from a field of over 4000 (tea) contestants and then buyers meet with farmers. After the winners are announced, the Farmer's Association House turns into a big market where over a hundred tea farmers propose their competition Oolongs for sale. The advantage for consumers is that the teas have been graded during the tea competition: 1, 2 or 3 flowers (equivalent of stars). The more stars, the higher the price, and these 3 price levels are the same for all farmers. In general, such graded teas cost a little more than if you go to the farmer to purchase non competition teas, because costs for the competition have to be added.

For consumers who are unsure about their selection ability and are afraid to be ripped off, it is a way to obtain an independent quality label for the tea they purchase. I would say it helps turn tea into a commodity for those who are not experts. But for myself, a 3 stars rating system is not enough to tell you what kind of Oolong you are buying. Tea farmers usually will also tell you where it comes from and what roasting level it has. But I found there can still be big differences in taste for the same grade. For expert drinkers, competition teas still need to be tested before purchase. And almost the only day you can do that is that Sunday. Once the competition tea hits the shelves of the tea shops, it is packaged and sealed. (It is also sealed on Sunday, but the farmers have a sample of each of their sealed batches and they use that sample to let buyers test tea on that day.) More on that subject after I come back...

My other 'concern' for my trip is the emergence of fake Formosa Oolong. Teaparker recently wrote two articles on the subject. I'm not really concerned that my sources will try to fool me with this imported Oolongs. We know each other long enough and they would be risking their long term relationship with me if they tried to do something like this to me. They know I have a well trained long nose (foreigners are called 'long nose' in Taiwanese!) I've found that tea professionals are quite straightforward about this among each other: they tell you right away that Oolong comes from Fujian, Indonesia or Vietnam. With wholesale prices a third or a fourth of what Formosa Gao Shan Oolongs cost, it's obvious theses Oolongs don't come from Taiwan.

Last year, I had purchased some fake Oolongs and remember giving a few samples away together with my winter Oolongs. I didn't get much feedback from my readers. Personnally, I felt there was a big difference in taste between genuine Formosa Gao Shan Cha and these imitations. Those tend to turn bitter and don't have as flower and fine fragrances. But I wonder how long real Formosa Gao Shan Oolongs will remain ahead of that foreign competition. A reason of concern is that these fake oolongs are often produced by Taiwanese farmers who have 'off shored' their production. They brought the same equipment and skills to East Asia then those used in Taiwan. The only thing they couldn't bring along is the 'Shan Tou Chi', the soil (le terroir). But, when you consider wines, this didn't stop New World wines to become the rising stars they are nowadays, while most French wines don't seem to evolve and improve much anymore.

I hope to find some foreign Oolong so that I can continue to educate you about the differences with real Formosa Oolong with the help of samples. A part of me (attached to Taiwan) hopes that Formosa Oolong will be better, but another part of me hopes that these other countries will also learn to make good Oolongs at lower prices. I wouldn't hesitate to sell such teas with a proper label mentioning their true origin if I found them interesting enough. This competition can be an opportunity for Taiwanese farmers to move higher in quality and better stress the unique characteristics of Taiwan's climate, mountains and culture. Teaparker says consumers also need to learn more how to identify and appretiate Oolong. This is where I try to be of help with my blog.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hello Stephane;
You mention one third to one quarter pricing for "off shore" oolongs, but I do not think that will happen to the highest quality oolongs producded from China. The demand for organic plus the quality demands such as hand plucking and roasting compared to mowing and batch roasting from multiple sites is going to necessitate higher costs. You did not mention the trend over the last 5 years or more now of the more affluent Chinese bidding up the price of teas because they demand the higher quality. Look at what has happened to the pricing of aged oolongs and pu-ehr beengs - triple in just one year. As the processing becomes more complex and refined and as the market becomes more complex demanding for heirloom and artisan finishes, the prices will skyrocket. The farmer will demand higher prices for the limited supply and the buyers will pay for it. Terry and Barbara in Homestead, Florida

gero said...

Hi Stéphane,
(Perhaps you've covered this in a later blog entry. Right now I am reading through your entire blog from the start - today I've reached here)
There is a phantastic foreign Oolong from a very unlikely place: New Zealand. Try to google 'Zealong' (no, I am not affiliated to them, though we will soon be selling their greenest Oolong in our shops). They have a great website. Our tea tasters passed on three different samples from them. Really well crafted teas.
In our shops we used to sell a Gao Shan from Taiwan, but that was replaced by a Jade Oolong type from Sumatra - the quality is definitly lower, but as the price is considerably lower, the value/price - ratio is much better. Fine by me, as long as the label is clear about the tea not being from Taiwan.

Hope we will put the Zealong on our shelves within the next two weeks - I promise to send you a sample!

Natuerlich haette ich Dir auch auf Deutsch schreiben koennen, aber die meisten deiner Leser wuerden dann vermutlich nicht wissen, worum es geht.

Morgen einen schoenen zweiten Advent wuenscht Dir

Gero

Stephane said...

Hi Gero,
I've already had the chance to drink 3 oolong samples from New Zealand. They were OK, but not special, despite growing in a different climate. So, you don't have to send me a sample. But you should compare them with my Concubine Oolong!

I also agree that it's OK to sell oolong from other countries as long as you say clearly where it comes from. You may be right that you can find better bargains elsewhere and that not all Taiwanese Oolongs are worth their price. However, a well crafted Taiwan High Mountain Oolong is still a wonderful tea with a unique sweetness and freshness.

gero said...

Yes Stéphane,
I totally agree with you about the unique quality of a wellcrafted Taiwan Oolong!
In May 1991 I spent a prolonged weekend in Taipei (which was far too short!). My host gave me a box of tea as a parting gift. It turned out to be the best tea I have ever tasted in my life!
It was a Gao Shan Oolong and on the box it said 仙山茗茶.

Any chance you know this tea and put it on your price list?

Even 20 years later I clearly remember a night when I started drinking that heavenly tea at 10 pm and kept on infusing the same leaves until 5 am in the morning. I was totally tea drunk and happy.
Perhaps that tea has ruined Gao Shan Oolongs for me: nothing has given me the same tea pleasure.

Stephane said...

This sounds like the name of the tea shop that sold the tea, not of an actual mountain. So it's probably not possible to get this tea again, especially 20 years later!

Drinking from 10PM to 5AM must have left a special memory that is difficult to top! Maybe you could try to make an elaborate Cha Xi during the Xmas holiday.